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March 09, 2012

Christ the Checkpoint – A Preliminary Response

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For the past five days, a group of approximately 600 Evangelical Protestants have attended a conference in Bethlehem titled “Christ at the Checkpoint.”

This conference, organized by the Bethlehem Bible College, a well-known evangelical institution located on the West Bank, has generated a significant amount of attention, controversy, and concern in Israel and in Jewish communities throughout the world for one simple reason: The words that come out of Christian mouths have had a huge impact on the safety and well being of the Jewish people for most of the past 2,000 years. The sad reality is that Christianity’s message of peace has oftentimes been intertwined with horrific expressions of hostility toward the Jewish people and their institutions. This hostility has had real-world impacts.

The possibility that this conference would be the scene of anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish polemic was not one that could be easily discounted given the impact of another institution, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center has had on how mainline Protestant churches in the United States and Europe addressed issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In response to these concerns, CAMERA sent a researcher to monitor the proceedings who has been gratified by the graciousness with which the conference organizers and the participants have welcomed him. He has had a number of conversations with attendees who have graciously listened to and acknowledged his concerns about the conference. The atmosphere of the conference is markedly different than that of other so-called peacemaking conferences and gatherings that this researcher has attended. This is due in large part to the leadership of the Palestinian Christian leaders who organized the conference. There were some missteps on this score, which will be addressed in a future article, but their commentary was overall more responsible than that of Sabeel.

At the outset, it must be acknowledged that the debate at Christ at the Checkpoint was centered on Christian Zionism as a theology. While debate on this subject has clear and undeniable implications for the Jewish people and Israel, it is a largely internal Christian debate.

This conference has demonstrated that there is a growing number of people who believe that Christian Zionism has real-world impacts on a number of issues of great concern to evangelicals. A number of evangelicals simply do not want to be associated with eschatologies that they believe increase the prospect of violence in the Middle East.

They are also bothered by the possibility that Christian Zionism hinders their ability to evangelize to Muslims in the Middle East and in other parts of the world – an enterprise which appears to be gaining support in the Evangelical community.

One of the ongoing problems with this internal debate, however, is the manner in which opponents of Christian Zionism have become part of what Christian theologian James Parkes has called “the literature of attack” against Jews. Simply put, there are times when opponents of Christian Zionism descend into troubling rhetoric about the Jews and the state of Israel.

This is evident in name of the conference itself (“Christ at the Checkpoint”), which encourages Christians to use their doctrines to interrogate Israeli security measures in a discriminatory manner, without using Christian teachings to highlight and judge Palestinian, Arab or Muslim violence with the same energy and focus. This has been a persistent problem of Christian peacemaking activism over the years and needs to be addressed by Bethlehem Bible College in future manifestations of the event.

CAMERA is not the only organization that remarked on this problem, which was exacerbated by the visual rhetoric of the conference itself. As the photo at the top of this entry reveals, every speaker addressed the audience standing in front of a banner that showed a Christian church and cross standing in opposition to a concrete section of the security barrier. This banner, which seemed styled on the anti-Israel graffiti and painting posted on the security barrier, served as the visual frame for the conference and this frame did not include any reference to Israeli fear.

To his credit, Pastor Tony Campolo addressed Israeli fears during his talk, which on the last afternoon of the conference, after attendees had been exposed to the banner for the past four days. In light of Christianity’s tendency to use negative depictions of Judaism as a negative backdrop for the superiority of the Christian faith, this is very troubling.

The conference’s tendency to scrutinize Zionism, Israel and Jewish identity was also particularly evident in the discussion about Christian Zionism, which as stated above, is an internal debate. Still, sometimes it got a bit ugly, particularly during Rev. Dr. Gary Burge’s discussion about the topic. During his presentation, he regaled the audience with stories of how he confronted Orthodox Jews about their claim to the land of Israel by virtue of being descendants of Abraham. One confrontation took place in the Old City of Jerusalem and another took place at the Kotel or Western Wall.

His description of these confrontations, which elicited laughter from the audience, made it clear that he has more than a disagreement with Christian Zionist support for Israel, but Jewish self-understanding and how Jews relate to the land.

Would he challenge Muslims in the same manner about their territorial claims based on their religious beliefs? This is simply not an issue Dr. Burge has addressed in his writings about the Arab-Israeli conflict. On this score, asserting that it was not part of the frame of the conference would be more of an admission of guilt than it is an effective talking point in defense of the conference.

The issue of Muslim hostility toward Israel, Jews (and Christians) was addressed at the conference by Colin Chapman, a long time critic of Israel, but it was given short shrift and was done in such a manner so as to hinder any real discussion of the subject. At one point, Chapman responded rather brusquely to questions about Muslim violence against Christians in the Middle East by saying the questions themselves indicated that the questioners hadn’t put themselves in the shoes of Muslims in the Middle East.

While the conference organizers proclaimed that different viewpoints were presented during the program, the range of discussion was rather limited. To be sure, this is due in part to the topic of the debate, which was not merely about Christian Zionism, but how Christians should relate to the Jews in general. The participation of Messianic Jewish leaders, (ethnic Jews who have embraced Jesus Christ) such as Wayne Hildsen was proffered as evidence of diversity. But there is at least one assumption that Messianic Jews have about their fellow Jews who have not accepted Jesus Christ that have troubling implications on any discussion about the Jewish state.

In particular, the belief that Jews who do not accept Jesus are disobedient and reprobate casts a troublesome shadow on any Christian discussion about the modern state of Israel, particularly in the presence of some hostile critics of Israel. Not every Christian has this belief, but many do, even some Christian Zionists as do many Messianic Jews.

Clearly, Hildsen and other Messianic Jews are supportive of Israel as a nation state, but the logical conclusion of their belief that Israeli Jews as disobedient because of their refusal to accept Jesus is that the modern state of Israel is providing for the safety and security of a reprobate people who by virtue of the rejection of Jesus, are enemies of God. They may be beloved enemies, but they are enemies nonetheless. If this is the case, whatever suffering caused by this state is a double sin, somehow more worthy of contempt.

This highlights an underling problem with the “Christ at the Checkpoint” Conference. Two discussions were taking place at this conference. The first conversation centered around how Christians should respond to the Jewish rejection of Christ. The second was centered on how they should respond to the Palestinian suffering caused by the Jewish state.

Anyone who does not see the dangers of having these parallel discussions taking place at a conference where there is no real effort to address Muslim anti-Semitism and the threats Israel faces is simply being obtuse.

Posted by dvz at March 9, 2012 12:05 PM

Comments

Interesting report on the conference. Messianic Jews strike me as being Christians in drag!

Considering what went on at the previous event in 2010, it would seem that the strong criticism leading up to the event led to a moderation of the rhetoric of the participants. I wonder would the author agree with that, in which case there should be similar vigilence of further events.

Posted by: Rob Harris at March 15, 2012 03:19 PM

Time to remind the participants and the entire Christian community of the way Muslim countries have treated and continue to treat Christians. In addition to burning Coptic churches, etc, what has happened to the numbers of Christians in Muslim countries? Christians are second to Jews in the crosshairs of Islamists, but not by much. Check the data before calling this bigotry or racism or intolerance.

Posted by: Jacob T Chachkes, M.D. at March 15, 2012 09:35 PM

I'm an individual who stands mournfully grieved at the restlessness of those who continue to war against one another tossing aside any commitment towards peacefull outcomes, I say this standing on my beliefs I feel are based upon godly righteousness and the impartiality I fight top practice of God's impartiality toawrds any group of people including Israel his chosen" as it is revealed in scripture. Galatians 5:22 says that love, peace, joy, longsuffering, kindness. patience, goodness, are what we strive for in this life where darkness seeks to over take the world of man's systems of religion that seem to forget to goal to attain unity in the spirit of love. Even as a Christian I believe that there are righteous, loving, and peacefull Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, who live by the law of the heart and seek that same righteousness as I do. Let us not be fooled" Jesus own command love one another as I have loved you, 1st John the love chapter says the man who say's he love God whom he has not seen but does not love his brother is a liar" to put away all the bitterness of the past is a miracle in itself because of man's oppostion towards one another.Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God"

Posted by: John A at April 17, 2012 06:16 PM

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